No matter who wins the mayoral race, the proposed $115 million plan to build two new schools might be in trouble.
Both Republican mayoral candidate Ken Johnson and Democratic hopeful Art Ward said there should be more public input into the decision about whether to press forward with two new kindergarten through eighth grade schools.
“Based on what I’m hearing on my listening tour, the administration has failed to adequately market and sell the proposal of moving to a K-8 system,” Johnson said.
The plan suffered a blow with Ellen Zoppo’s defeat in the Democratic mayoral primary last week. Zoppo’s campaign had strong backing from several of the Board of Education leaders who have championed the project, including Tom O’Brien, its most visible cheerleader.
What’s also clear is that support for a public referendum on the project is growing, a move that might doom the plan unless school officials succeed in selling it to a skeptical electorate.
“The people should have a say in what they’re doing instead of ramming this thing through,” said Mark Blaschke, an independent running for City Council in the 2nd District.
He said that renovating existing buildings would be cheaper and called the school board “a little bit irresponsible” in pushing for such a large project.
The City Council and Board of Finance gave their blessing this summer to send the project to state education regulators so that it would secure a place in line for future funding that might pay as much as 70 percent of the tab.
School building committees are trying to figure out where to put the new 900-student schools now, with one likely to be erected next door to the existing Greene-Hills Schools in Forestville and the other in the western part of Bristol, perhaps even at the downtown mall site.
There is still plenty of time, though, for city officials to kill or modify the plan, which also includes closing three older elementary schools – Bingham, O’Connell and Greene-Hills – as well as Memorial Boulevard Middle School.
Ward said the public “should be afforded a greater input into the transition to a K-8 system” and the prospect of building two more schools.
“Unfortunately, the Board of Education, when undertaking consideration of these most important of educational issues, did not invite adequate public input into the process,” Ward said.
“Public opinion on each of these ideas has been resounding throughout the community,” Ward said, “which leads me to believe that additional dialogue will only serve to contribute to ensuring that the final decisions actually reflect the desires of the people who will be utilizing and paying for these services and facilities.”
Johnson, who would require a referendum on the project, said that “If local politicians want to switch to a K-8 system and build two new schools, then they will have to do a better job of explaining it and marketing the proposal to the voters. If the voters say no then so be it.”
Joe Geladino, a 2nd District Republican council contender, said he would prefer to have the public vote on whether to switch to a K-8 system.
“However, as it stands now, this is a decision that will be made solely by the Board of Education,” he said. “I can only hope that the BOE allows for a truly open forum and abides by the wishes expressed by the public.”
“Leave well enough alone,” Blaschke said, and don’t dump the current elementary and middle school scheme in favor of a K-8 system.
City Councilor Craig Minor, a Democrat seeking reelection in the 3rd District, said “the suitability of the K-8 system is a very complex and technical issue and therefore should be left to the elected Board of Education to decide, based on advice and data from education experts and only after a series of public informational sessions.”
The school board has, however, already made the decision to make the switch.
Minor said that the size of the new schools, however, “is an issue that speaks to who we are as a community and what we feel we can afford, and therefore should be subject to the referendum process.”
Bruce Lydem, a Democratic council contender in the 2nd District, said officials “must do everything in our power to make sure our children have the best possible educational opportunities available to them.”
He said school board members are “best equipped to make an informed decision in regards to the question of conversion” to a K-8 system.
“That being said,” Lydem added, “the City Council, the mayor’s office and the board should work together to make the best informed decisions for our kids.”
Lydem said he also believes that school board members “should put in place a process that involves heavy and frequent public input in regards to building new schools. They should set up public forums where citizens can voice their views and opinions. Democracy works best when we all get involved.”
The problem, said Republican council candidate Bob Merrick, is that education leaders have “not clearly described what a K-8 actually is in their eyes and how it would improve learning.”
He said he wants to know more about how the new schools would be staffed, how large classes would be there, whether teachers would have to deal with more than one subject or multiple grades, and more.
“The new schools is a more complex issue as well since they are replacing four schools of various sizes with two 900-student schools,” said Merrick, who’s running in the 3rd District.
He said O'Connell and Bingham “are in need of immediate attention for renovation or replacement,” but Memorial Boulevard and Greene-Hills “are in better condition and still could be utilized.”
“We can’t and shouldn’t take the public out of public education,” Merrick said. “A referendum may provide us with a clear community vision for our schools.”
“However, asking people to decide complex questions without accurate and plentiful information to seriously consider all reasonable alternatives is foolish,” he said.
“My support for a referendum would be contingent on a well-developed plan to inform the public and the opportunity to have their questions answered in a public forum allowing open discussion of the pluses and drawbacks of all available options,” Merrick said.
Every mayoral and council candidate was given the chance to respond to questions about the school plan. Some did not answer. Others said they preferred not to comment.
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